A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Until a few years ago, the normal way to publish academic research from the humanities or social services (a requirement of the job) was to write a book of 80,000 words plus, or a scholarly essay of no more than 7,000 words, published in impossibly expensive academic journals or as a chapter in a book of collected essays on a particular subject. There was nothing in between if you wanted to be published by a mainstream academic publisher. The breakthrough came when Palgrave Macmillan – a big name in academic publishing – invented a new book format that would publish texts of between 25,000 and 50,000 words in digital and hardback forms, effectively plugging a lot of the gap. Since this is an alternative way to publish one’s scholarly research, Vulpes Libris wanted to know more, and talked to Ben Doyle, one of the Palgrave Pivot commissioning editors.
VL: Can you explain how and why Palgrave Pivot works as a good business model for Palgrave Macmillan, even if it was an obviously canny model for authors keen to get published fast?
BD: Firstly, thanks for your interest! For us, launching the Palgrave Pivot format was really all about offering authors an option that, as you noted, has previously been denied to them. We all know of books that are longer than they needed to be, and we all also know academics that have been forced to carve up one piece of research into a number of smaller articles, when it was originally intended to stand alone. The move towards digital, and away from print, has made experimentation with length and format easier. This seemed like the right time to launch a mid-length format, particularly in light of how fast research practices, and the ways in which research is assessed, are changing.
The launch of Palgrave Pivot means that we can now accommodate research across the whole spectrum, so that academics are able to publish their research at its natural length and aren’t forced to cut or pad their work unnecessarily. We also pledge to publish accepted manuscripts, post peer review, within 12 weeks – and our record is four weeks after acceptance. This makes it a very attractive option for academics looking to publish speedily. I’m pleased to say that we’re now one of the first ports of call for work of this type, and our lists have expanded significantly as a result.
VL: The fast turnaround from acceptance into print is a big selling point for authors, since in the humanities an accepted journal article can take up to two years to appear, which is frustrating when you need to make your name as the author of ground-breaking, game-changing material. Books can also take a long time in production, so how can Pivot titles be published so fast, when other books from Palgrave might take longer? Also, how can Palgrave find peer reviewers who report so fast, when it is normal for authors to have to wait two months for their MSS to be reviewed? Is the rigour of review the same?
BD: The short answer to this is that we’ve got a fantastic production team in place that have been working extremely hard on workflows and production schedules to ensure that we’re able to deliver upon the ‘three months or less’ promise! It also helps working with such conscientious authors, as the manuscripts that are accepted for production need to be in good shape in order for us to process them quickly. This relies on us giving the authors instructions early on in the process regarding how we want their manuscript presented, as well as them actually following these instructions. The author response time throughout the production process is also significantly quicker than with our regular monograph programme – authors are aware in advance of submitting their final MS that they’ll need to turn proofs/copy-edit queries around quickly and are usually very good at doing so. We also save time through using standard (though very lovely) jacket templates for volumes. The whole production process is administered digitally, which speeds things up a great deal, and we’re fortunate to have good systems in place that generate metadata very quickly for our ebook platform and third party ebook vendors.
The peer review process is the same as for our monograph programme, so all projects and manuscripts are subjected to the same level of scrutiny as our longer-form titles. The rigour of the review process is absolutely the same. We’re often able to turn reviews around quicker simply because there’s usually less material for the reader to read, as it’s a shorter format, so they’re usually more willing to take it on in the first place and are also able to get to it quicker.
VL: Are the author royalties the same as for normal Palgrave monographs? What have sales been like so far, for comparable subject areas? Do you see a pattern emerging in the kind of material being offered to Pivot?
BD: Yes, royalties are pretty consistent between monograph programme and the Palgrave Pivot programme. Sales have been broadly comparable to our monograph programme as well – the market at which our Palgrave Pivot volumes are aimed is similar, so the sales patterns are also pretty similar.
In terms of the kind of material that we’ve seen submitted for the format, the variety really has been surprising. I’ve published slightly more focused studies that require more room than a journal article affords but that couldn’t be usefully padded out to monograph length. That said, I’ve also found the Pivot model to be a good length for particular types of work – work written in a more essayistic style, for instance, or work that adopts a more polemical tone. Many of the academics that I’ve discussed the format with have viewed it as an excellent length at which to make an initial intervention into an emergent area upon which other academics can then build. A position piece, if you will.
VL: What subjects do you want to see more of in the Pivot list? How does Pivot’s list now compare with Palgrave’s main lists?
I can’t speak for my colleagues who work on other lists, of course, but for my section of the Literature list I’d like to see some more polemical work. I think that this is a really good length for this kind of work and would like to publish short, punchy and provocative work that really sparks discussion and debate.
Aside from this, I’m in the process of growing our offerings, both in longer and shorter format, at the intersection between literature and science. We recently launched a book series – ‘Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine’. Similarly, we also have a book series that we publish exclusively using our Palgrave Pivot format at 25-50,000 words, called ‘Global Shakespeares’, edited by Alexa Huang. As this is our only book series that is exclusive to the Palgrave Pivot format I’d be very keen to see proposals for work in this area. For more information, see the series page.
All of this said, provided the work/research in question is of a high calibre and falls between 25,000-50,000 words as its natural length, I’d be interested to hear about it – Palgrave Pivot is open for submissions across disciplines and across subfields within those disciplines – the aim really is to publish top-quality research at its natural length.
Palgrave Pivot is as diverse as our monograph programme in terms of subject matter. I’m fortunate to work on a mature list with a rich heritage and a deep, strong backlist, and the Palgrave Pivot strand is obviously much newer in comparison. That said, the list of volumes has already grown rapidly and we believe this growth will continue. I’m very excited to be acquiring these books, and I know my authors are excited about the format too.
VL: You’re very complimentary about the can-do attitude of Pivot authors, but are they really sending their MSS to Pivot in a better or more complete state of presentation than they might to your mainstream lists? Do you reject MSS that don’t reach the new higher standards, even before peer review? We all know (and should avoid) the ‘scholarly’ publisher that cuts its costs by insisting that authors do all the layout and editing themselves. What proportion of production time at Pivot is set aside for editing?
BD: Due to the time constraints built into the Palgrave Pivot production process we are by necessity a little more exacting with our requirements for final manuscripts publishing in this format. That said, the volumes themselves go through the same production process as our monograph lists – all are copy-edited and typeset by us and we certainly wouldn’t expect authors to present camera-ready copy. Part of the service that we provide as a publisher is the layout/typesetting and editing that you mention and we wouldn’t dream of compromising on this to cut costs or to simply speed things up. This ‘infographic’ for one of our best-known Palgrave Pivot titles shows you the exact timeline from submission of the initial proposal to publication. This obviously varies from book to book and we work hard to accommodate authors’ individual schedules, but this should give an idea of the timeframes involved in an ideal world.
VL: Going back to one of your earlier points, you say that the Pivot model makes it possible for research to not need unnecessary padding to reach the usual lower word limit for a book. My books usually have to be savagely trimmed to get below the upper limit of 120,000 words. Why have an upper and lower word limit at all, especially with digital publishing?
BD: Well that’s a good question, and I think it’s something that will certainly be queried and tested more and more the faster things turn to digital and move away from print. In practical terms, particularly as a significant proportion of our sales still come through traditional print channels, not having an upper ‘cap’ on the word limit would have real ramifications for the economic viability of lengthier projects which require copy-editing, typesetting, printing etc. We do publish works of less than 20,000 words in our journals, and our new open access journal Palgrave Communications (which is online only) has no word limits.
VL: Thank you, Ben and Palgrave!
Read my account of how I road-tested the Palgrave Pivot manuscript submission experience.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.